The little secrets of collaboration: When empathy finally flips ‘Me’ over to ‘We’


You, me, we (Credits: Memphis CVB / FlickR)
You, me, we (Credits: Memphis CVB / FlickR)

Collaboration often starts off from a place where a collection of relatively self-centred individuals decide to work together.

The self-centredness is not a problem per se, it’s a fact. Though I was recently reminded in a Blink about ‘Ego is the enemy‘ that one can be unreasonably self-centred too but that’s a digression). In any collaborative, we have our personality and our individual experience, set of interests and motivation… there is a whole lot of things that matter… to ourselves.

We essentially live the beginning of that collaboration as a gallery of ‘me’s‘ wandering about and trying to achieve what is at stake for ourselves to start with.

Then time kicks-in, slows things down, slows us down and gets us to see a whole new playing field, Patterns emerge. The relationships we cultivate as part of a collaboration evolve just like that, with a different time frame than that required by what that collective wants to do.

In that derailing time frame, a click happens. As we work together, talk together, reflect on ourselves and our actions together, we start opening up, we make ourselves more vulnerable, we develop empathy.

And this recent post by Melinda Gates in my news stream just captures one of the key values of empathy:

Empathy leads to listening—and listening leads to understanding. (A conversation with Oprah is good for the soul. https://m-gat.es/2DBZG53)

Through empathy, we are not only being respectful for each other’s ideas, we start getting genuinely interested in finding out what others have to say, and who they are. Another recent post in my stream is chiming in on this point:

Myth #2: Empathy gets in the way of good work (Agnes Otzelberger – Burning out for people and the planet: four dangerous self care myths)

With empathy, we start caring, we engage our emotional intelligence, we get compassionate. We recognise we are made of the same stuff. We are connected. Deeply.

It’s at THAT very moment, that collaboration really begins. Properly.

(Credits: Dewey Ambrosino)
(Credits: Dewey Ambrosino)

We are finally ready to listen intently to each other and – as my Community At Work friends would emphasise in their Group Facilitation Skills and their Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration training courses – to find common ways enriched by each other’s perspective, not reduced to the smallest common denominator.

But it’s not even only about that!

When Me flips to We, if we have developed some process literacy, we start supporting each other not just individually, for one another, but also for the collective interest. It’s no longer just about understanding everyone individually in the collaborative, it’s also about helping everyone connect to what the group is doing, and helping the group accommodate all its individuals. A dual game that again rests in empathy and the emotional, mental and moral support we provide for each other. (As it happens, in a recent study group session of the above-mentioned Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration training, I was a first-hand witness of that phenomenon).

It could almost be summed up by an equation:

Empathy + Process literacy = Effective collaboration

Of course my point here is certainly not to obliterate individual points of views and the expertise that everyone brings. On the contrary, I’m advocating for everyone to share their expertise, their superpowers, and to mobilise them in the service of the collective, not of our Ego.

On this note, watch this funny video about having quality collaboration vs. uninformed/inexperienced collaboration:

Now, a football game is one thing. Collaborating on some of the wickedest problems is another. And in the latter case we usually do need more than a few experts.

In any case now we know there are at least two things any of us involved in collaboration can work on: Stretch our empathy (and that takes some personal introspection – my next post) and develop our process literacy.

Not bad a start considering the tough challenges around us. So let’s go!

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Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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